Review: Dark Souls III

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Dark Souls III cover art.

The Souls series has had its fill of up and downs, with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls receiving critical acclaim, and Dark Souls II receiving both critical acclaim and a pile of vitriol. Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki claimed that, after the negative reaction to Dark Souls II, developer FromSoftware would make the third and last entry more akin to the original. While Dark Souls is the poster child for the series, it had issues just like all the others (imbalanced weapons and glitches, being the most obvious). The question for Dark Souls III is: have these issues been addressed? The short answer: things are much the same, as the issues are still there, but there have also been solid improvements.

Figuring It Out… Again

A staple of the Souls series has been a very minimalist story that is mostly left up to the player to figure out and interpret. Dark Souls III continues this trend with the majority of the story hidden in item descriptions and the rest told through non-playable-character (NPC) dialogue. The game takes place in the kingdom of Lothric and is based around the fact that the First Flame, responsible for the continuation of the Age of Fire (Dark Souls’ version of the renaissance) and keeping the world alive, is dying. When the First Flame dies out, certain lords are supposed to sacrifice their souls to kindle the Flame, thereby continuing the Age of Fire. However, the chosen lord to link the flame, Prince Lothric, has absconded and chosen to let the Flame die out.

With the powers that be shirking their responsibilities, it is up to the player to track down and murder the lords, in order to get their ashes and return them to their thrones. The player character is referred to as an Ashen One, who was awoken from their grave by the toll of a bell signaling that the First Flame was in danger. In a prior time, the Ashen One tried to link the flame and failed, but without any other viable options the denizens of Firelink Shrine, the main hub area, assist the Ashen One in their quest by selling items, upgrading equipment and leveling up the character.

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The world of Dark Souls III may be logical in design, but is all too familiar.

Among the many complaints against Dark Souls II, one prominent one was that the world jumped from area to area with no real logical paths between them. Dark Souls III feels like a knee-jerk reaction to that as the world, barring one outlier, is as logical as can be. The player will find themselves in a village outside the castle, in a swamp outside the castle, the catacombs underneath the castle and finally inside the castle. From start to finish the game seems to go out of its way to be correct in the layout. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Souls veterans have seen similar areas before, and while people weren’t expecting a whole new experience, it’s a letdown to find hardly any surprises. Furthermore, the game is very linear – in other Souls games, side paths could and would take the player on a long winding road to somewhere else worth visiting, yet many of the available side paths in Dark Souls III are short roads that lead to nothing.

Dark Souls has also used the level design to deliver a fear induced, white-knuckled controller gripping experience, but that feeling is hardly felt in Dark Souls III. The main culprit is that the bonfires that replenish the player’s health and Estus Flasks (which provide health and focus point regeneration) are either close together or just a shortcut away. In other Souls games, getting to that next bonfire was a struggle, and finding it was a huge relief, but it’s hard to feel relieved when there isn’t a fear of failure and having to fight through waves of enemies all over again. Towards the end of the game, the player defeats a tough boss, creating a bonfire. The player then walks up some stairs and runs into another bonfire that is still in sight of the prior one. With so many bonfires, the fear of failure that made Dark Souls such a memorable game is gone. When a developer sets out to make a challenging game, they need to make it challenging for the right reasons and then stick with those aspects, something FromSoftware lost sight of.

Glorious Combat

Dark Souls has always made a concerted effort to provide visceral combat, and Dark Souls III is the new standard bearer in that regard. FromSoftware took the best aspects of the earlier entries in the series plus some of the elements from Bloodborne and made the best combat system in the series. The combat in Dark Souls III is faster than other Souls games yet slower than Bloodborne – a Goldilocks approach that’s amazing in its implementation. The pace of combat is perfect to the point where split second decisions and the ability to quickly recognize patterns will either save or ruin the player.

Dark Souls III still sports a wide array of weapons and magic, letting the player either specialize in one discipline or spread their points across different attributes. While at lower levels it’s better to specialize in one weapon or magic class, once the player is at higher levels the ability to swap back and forth on the fly mid-battle is a blast. Melee attacks have two varieties: one regular attack and one that can be charged up. Parrying attacks is still part of combat, and is very effective, but not always easy to execute. The magic system has reverted to focus points, which were last seen in Demon’s Souls. Functioning the same as mana points in other games, focus points are used for all magic and the brand new weapon arts.

Weapon arts are new to the Souls series. Each weapon has a specific skill that is utilized when holding it in both hands. These weapon skills vary from spin attacks, to a block followed by a large slash, to spells, to quicker movement, to guard breaks. Each of the weapon skills have their use and can change the tide of battle when used effectively against other players, but I rarely felt the need to use them against computer enemies.

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The combat of Dark Souls III is its strongest asset, and propels the game to the top of the franchise.

Speaking of which, player versus player (PvP) combat is back and frenetic as ever. Certain areas of the game will see the player invaded almost as soon as they enter it, and with Dark Souls III supporting up to six players in one game, there is the possibility for larger (and perhaps unfair) fights – 3v3 or 4v2 fights are common. Co-op gameplay is still a feature and is much better implemented this time around – the password matching system from Bloodborne is used here, and it’s very welcomed. The password system lets friends play together regardless of level as the game will either scale the summoned player up or down to the level of the host.

That said, all is not well with the combat system, as weapon balance issues persist. When an overwhelming percent of players in PvP use the same weapon, one would think FromSoftware would recognize that the weapon was too strong. Yet after a number of patches addressing balance issues, items like the Dark Sword are still silly powerful. The issue is not so much the strength of the weapon but that the weapon has what is called phantom range. The Dark Sword is a member of the straight sword family and enjoys the fast attacks that class of weapon has, yet the hit box of the weapon is much larger than the actual weapon. The phantom range of the Dark Sword gives it a similar reach of much larger weapons, such as great swords. Combine the quick attacks and overly long reach, and it’s easy to see why the Dark Sword is so popular. This is not the only unbalanced weapon in the game, but it’s the most glaring example of this problem.

Another issue is that there are specific weapons whose descriptions state that they are designed to go around shields to inflict damage, yet these weapons do not work properly, inflicting minimal damage at best. It’s beyond obvious to see that something is wrong with these weapons when a player can sit behind a greatshield with another player wailing away yet doing no damage. It’s frustrating that FromSoftware hasn’t addressed this issue, and what’s even more frustrating is that previous entries took a better approach to this class of weapons. FromSoftware created new problems for Dark Souls III, an especially troubling problem when they haven’t fixed other balancing issues.

Unfortunately, there is more confusion surrounding the combat. Since its release, the online community has been puzzled over the function of the poise stat. In Dark Souls, poise allowed the player to take hits and not get stunned, thereby avoiding being hit multiple times without being able to do anything about it – this is referred to as stunlock. However, in Dark Souls III, no matter how much poise the character has there is no amount that avoids stunlock. This fact sent players on a hunt through the game’s code to see what was going on and eventually someone found out that poise as it was known was in the code but was simply turned off. Yet, FromSoftware countered by saying poise was working as it was designed, leaving players frustrated.

Recently, a fan on reddit figured out the likely solution: poise allows you to take more hits without taking damage while rolling. When rolling, the character is given a certain amount of invincibility frames (iframes) where no damage is taken. If the character is hit during rolling, the iframe count diminishes, thereby making it easier to be hit. However, if some heavy armor with high poise value is worn, the amount that the iframes diminish is reduced and they also recover faster. Long story short: heavier armor and larger shields make rolling dodges better, which makes absolutely no sense. Poise worked fine in Dark Souls, and this is another example of a developer fixing things that are not broke, over complicating something simple and focusing on problems that don’t exist. With game budgets ballooning ever skyward, leaving some things alone that don’t need changed or fixed is an easy way to save a few dollars, and poise is a prime example.

Covenanting Around

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Covenants are a major letdown in Dark Souls III.

In the Souls series, covenants are factions specializing in certain tasks, like helping others through the game, invading other players or hunting down the people who invade other worlds. Additionally, when a player was in those covenants they could follow a sidequest that added to the canon. Joining, and more so leaving a covenant, was sometimes hard to accomplish. Dark Souls III has thrown most of those ideas right out the window and really went down the wrong path with covenants.

In Dark Souls III, players are allowed to switch covenants at will and none of the covenant leaders speak – most are dead or statues. Making matters worse is that four of the covenants are essentially the exact same. Two covenants, Darkmoon Blades and Blue Sentinels, are summoned in to help other players who have been invaded and are in the Way of the Blue covenant, and two other covenants, Watchdogs of Farron and Aldrich Faithful, both invade different areas. Since the Darkmoons and the Sentinels both function in the same way it is inherently difficult to level up the covenant.

Compounding matters is that there is no benefit for being in the Way of the Blue, except for possibly having help when someone else invades. The lack of reward system for the Way of the Blue means that most everyone leaves the covenant as soon as they find another one. Thus, getting summoned into another player’s game is few and far between because two different covenants are both vying for the same slot. Furthermore, while the game is looking to bring in a member of the Blue, the invader is already hunting down the host. This means that if a player is finally summoned in via the covenant, by the time they load in, the host player that got invaded is either already dead or has defeated the invader. Neither of those two outcomes are what is supposed to happen with the assisting covenants.

Of the two side quests that are part of the covenants, one of them doesn’t even need to be completed to still get the rewards from the covenant. It is a shame that FromSoftware did not put more effort into making the covenants and associated side quests worthwhile as it was a golden opportunity to bring more depth to the story and gameplay. While the core aspects of the game are very good, it feels like anything beyond that core has been hastily thrown together. When a game has such a rabid fan base as the Souls games do, hastily thrown together bits don’t work.

One particularly egregious example is a side quest for the Rosaria’s Finger covenant. One of the NPCs kills the covenant leader and the player gets to hunt down the person that did it. Once the player kills the NPC, they receive the leader’s soul and can then return the soul to Rosaria or can turn it in for a spell. If the player does not give the soul back, thereby resurrecting Rosaria, it does not affect the covenant. The player can still interact with the dead body of the covenant leader and do all the things offered by the covenant. This would have been a great place to add finality to the choice by leaving the covenant leader dead if the player kept the soul. Instead, it seems like they were quickly done and not well thought out.

End Of The Line

Miyazaki has said that Dark Souls III is going to be the last entry in the series, which is bittersweet. Granted, Dark Souls III has its problems, but they are known problems that for some reason still haven’t been resolved, and every previous Souls game shares the same issues. It’s unfortunate that the problems are still there, but with the upgraded combat and much improved graphics, Dark Souls III stands as the best game in the series. Many will look back to Dark Souls with fond memories, as it’s the game that started the craze, but the updates place Dark Souls III above its predecessor.

With the success that the game has had it’s hard to imagine FromSoftware not making another game similar in fashion. Despite the flaws, myself and many others are looking forward to what the future holds for FromSoftware.